Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada/Chapter 12

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Next to a persistent engagement around a goal, the great and exciting charm of Lacrosse is in the ever-varying incidents and vicissitudes of the Fielding,—the gladiatorial contests, the agile feat, the sudden rally, the skirmish, the running fight. Its aspects are so vascillating, and its situations so changeable, that no moment of play is like the play that preceded it: different men are after the ball in a different way, and every circumstance out on the field, as well as every crisis at the flags, has the fascination of novelty. A new player is sooner marked by his fielding and his sense of his individual responsibility, than by any particular point of play. The play on the field is conspicuous, and there never fails to every man opportunity to distinguish himself, if he can. To be a good fielder is, therefore, a sine qua non of every player; and men, ambitious of being on “The First Twelve,” have to “win their spurs” by indefatigable practice, and no kind of humbug. It embraces the leading and paramount part of the game, and the very pith of good play.

Signals.—A member of a Club in Toronto suggested, in 1867, the use of certain signals, or a Club cry, among a twelve playing another, which seems feasible. For instance, there are moments when a man carrying the ball must either throw or run the risk of losing it, while, at the same time, he cannot venture to look for the nearest fielder of his side. Supposing one of his side is behind him, or in any position favorable for receiving the ball, the former calls out some such signal as “A” or “One,”—the twelve being lettered alphabetically, or numbered in rotation; or he shouts the Club cry. At once the man in possession of the ball throws where the sound came from. It should be a point of honor with the sides not to make use of each other’s signals. The Toronto, and the Union Club of Guelph, and some others, have, we understand, a Club shout, which they use for the above purpose.

Practising men for special positions.—It is essential that Goal-keeper, Point, Cover-Point, Centre and Home should he special men accustomed to those positions; and we purpose giving their necessary qualifications and duties in this place.

Goal-keeper.—(See Chapter xiii.)

Point—Should stand in a line opposite Goal-keeper, at a distance of not more, usually, than forty feet, though his exact position should be regulated by the size of the ground, the disposition of his nearest opponents, and the fortunes of the game. He has one of the most important posts on the field,—a sort of key of the defence,—needing considerable self-reliance. A good Point keeps many a ball from the goal, and, in a hard-pushed game, is of invaluable service. He is supposed to be destruction to all attempts at dodging, good for any “shouldering” if necessary, a good runner, and last, but not least, a fair goal-keeper: indeed, the perfection of Point is to combine the qualifications of every player with a reliableness which peculiarly marks his position. He should avoid dodging near his own goal; be perfectly cool, collected, and prompt. He is essentially a defence, and, at the same time, a reserve and aid to the attack. He should always be on hand in hard-pressed games. When the ball is near or nearing his goal, he should back up if necessary; but, in close struggles, must avoid the cardinal sin of many Points—of backing upon the goal-keeper, thereby preventing him using his crosse with freedom, or seeing the ball.

Point should be able to relieve goal-keeper, and perform his duty.

Circumstances occur when he has to leave his position to charge down the field, follow the ball, or check an adversary at either flank. Cover-point or a fielder should then retire to his vacated post, and the positions of the former should also be replaced. It is dangerous, however, in a hard-pushed game, to leave his post farther than the line of cover-point; but when the play is even, or favorable to his side, he may change posts with any of the fielders. If there is no captain to keep the men in their places, the links nearest any vacated position should keep their own eyes open and quickly take them up. Every position, of course, is movable, as your side is weak or strong, and you choose to avoid or followy our posted adversaries; but, particularly at important places like Point, should the men be alive to changes. If it is absolutely necessary, in a strong attack, that your Point should go out, the nearest aid should invariably take up position between goal and cover-point, unless the attack has no men intervening.

Point should act upon the suggestions of goal-keeper. It must be borne in mind that a slip at Point is generally harder to retrieve than elsewhere; and that the fortune of the game is always increased in danger, in proportion to the nearness of the ball to your flags. It is absolutely necessary, then, that Point should be a thoroughly reliable man, and that his connecting links should always be on the alert for rapid support, retreat, or attack.

Cover-Point—Should regulate his distance from Point on the same principle that Point regulates his from goal, and though considered less permanently fixed, he should never fail to be in his place when the game is against him. A Cover-point should possess every qualification of a Point. As a general thing, he has to stand more hard work, and make more use of his legs; sometimes having two or three antagonists to manage. He is more at liberty to dodge than Point, has more opportunity for field play, and. may occasionally carry the ball down as far as he can go, and throw at goal; but a fielder should always relieve him. As soon as he has “played his part,” and got rid of the ball, he should retire to his original position.

Point, Cover-point and Goal-keeper are a trio in defence, and need confidence in each other. Tho two former must act in concert as to change of base, retiring, &c. We think the importance of these places has never been properly estimated: they make a defence either strong or weak.

Centre.—As the early fortune of each game may depend upon the way the ball first goes—whether it is sent down towards the flags of your opponents, or up to your own,—the position of Centre offers no ordinary scope for skill. It is merely temporary, and only survives the starting of the ball; but if the men are well posted, and Centre is able to send the ball to any particular one, the probabilities are that it goes up to the enemy’s flags, and may stay there, if the home attack is strong. The player facing is allowed more latitude of range; he is supposed to be one of those ubiquitous few, who wander around, a terror to dodgers everywhere, and a puzzle to opposing checks. Good wind, good running capabilities, and a thoroughness in every part of the game, make him a valuable acquisition to a "twelve."

Home—Should stand within eight or ten feet of the opposing goal, but must regulate his position according to the face of the game. He should always be the last of the fielding links towards the opponent's goal; should stand, as a rule, to one side, at right-angles with the right of the goal-keeper, so as to success the ball in sideways. The goal-crease has prohibited him standing within six feet of the goal-keeper until the bath has passe Cover-point, and a courteous home should never entrench upon this rule. He should always be ready to move near to the goal-crease when the ball is thrown towards it, and may make across to either side, as the game is going. He should not squat immediately in front of the crease, nor yet go out too far. When the ball is thrown to him or the flags, either in the air, or along the ground, he should close in, and hit it, or catch it on the wing, and sweep it in with force. Very often he has several antagonists to contend with, and several of his own side with whom to co-operate; and must not only have wit to fight his foes, but sense to aid his friends. Though he is Home, a tip in proper time to one of his side near by, may be more useful than if he had aimed direct at the flags.

Home should perfect himself in frisking the ball, quick straight throwing from the front and sides, and quick playing into the crosses of his side. The Indian Home puts the ball in for long shots, but when several are near the crease, he is no more Home than any other. This is as it should always be. Any man throwing at goal, should prefer angle or diagonal to front balls.

A sharp Home is the bugbear of a goal-keeper. He has opportunities for a specialty of play, and can develop a peculiar style, valuable to every man, but more especially so to himself. The ball comes to him in such a variety of ways, and so many changes occur in close contests around the flags, that he must exercise unusual sharpness and agility.

Fielders and Fielding.—The eight fielders— Centre being also a fielder—are the skirmishers of the “Twelve,” and are supposed to be more ubiquitous and flitting than the rest, and to have greater freedom in moving on the field and following the ball; though they have definite positions nevertheless. In the fluctuations of the game, they must be prepared to assume the positions of the more fixed points, when the latter are drawn out by checking or running. The general rules laid down for other players apply as well to the fielders ; though no absolute rule can be made for the invariable conduct of an entire “Twelve,” owing to the changes developed by the nature of the game. Every rule must be modified according to existing circumstances. It would be unreasonable, for instance, to make it a rule, that you should throw to the worst player; but there may be moments when by so doing, a game may be won. With some opponents you progress better by a weak defence, and a proportionately strong attack, and vice versa. If you have confidence in your side, individually and collectively, it materially alters your play. In fact, the Lacrosse-player has to use his own judgment of the position of affairs; and though guided by a captain, no captain can supersede individual judgment, nor obviate the necessity for every man keepii:g both his eyes open, for the advantages to be gained, and the defence to be guarded, in the wavering fortunes of the game.

The eight fielders should be expert in every part of the game; especially quick, accurate and en- during. As a first principle, they should play te each other, and to the more fixed points, and avoid the temptation for long wild throwing. Time was when men could play a showy game, and establish a reputation for superiority: now there are too many practical critics; Lacrosse is better under- stood, and a player who comparatively ignores the rest of his side, is put down as more vain than sagacious. There is a time to throw, and a time to dodge; a time to advance and a time to retire; and the perfection of fielding is to do all this neither too soon nor too late.

Playing to each other, or “tacking” the ball, is the characteristic of Indian play; and not until it was imitated by the pale-faces, did the latter show any chances of defeating the red-skin. Fielding degenerates into a mêlée without it, and the object of posting the men is defeated. The fielders should always keep the disposition of every man in view, and never waste a shot or unnecessarily break their wind. If tacking is adhered to, this intense exertion and wild play must have an end.

It is easy to understand the merit of each man perfecting his own play;—in fact, a good “Twelve” is always the result of individual progress: it is not that we deprecate, but the playing solely for effect and admiration; the attempt to monopolize attention in so far as possible, and for the sake of separate applause, sacrifice the science of Lacrosse to hard running. It is vexing to a side to see a man persist in carrying the ball, when a throw to another in a better position would have accomplished the object more surely. ‘To this pale-face fashion we have always attributed our defeats by the Indians They forget their individuality when hard pressed, and do not try to shine ai risk of losing the ball. There is no egotism in their play when hard pushed; they have a unity of aim and an alliance to play into each other’s hands; while we, working twice as hard, fail to combine our play or pin our faith to each other. Lately it has been improved, and our success, consequently, nearer consummation.

Aside from the art of play, there is a combination of mental and physical qualities required, for which no length of leg can compensate. When Lacrosse was “in its leading-strings,” it was considered the height of good fielding to rush frantically over the field, upset and be upset, and come out cut and bruised. If a man had shoulders like an Atlas, and the force of a battering-ram, he was the pet of his “ Twelve,” and the terror of his adversaries. The practical use of the crosse was by no means to be sneered at; indeed, in respect to the quick use of the stick, it was superior, in the home department, to the same art of today. The fielding, however, was very rough. To be spotted with mud from head to toe, was equal to a ribbon of the legion of honor, and a tough match was considered a cheap and capital way of draining mud puddles. There is more brain in the fielding and general play of to-day.

It is an Indian instinct, and should be a pale-face principle in Lacrosse, that the ball should be followed on or off the crosse, by the link of men in succession, as they happen to be near it, and with discretion as to weakening one’s side, by too much skirmishing from the vicinity of the man near whom you were originally posted. It is as important to follow a thrown ball which lights on the ground, as to give chase to a man carrying it, and the term “following the ball” includes both.

The Indians do not let our men carry or chase the ball with impunity. They bear down upon them, though there is no chance of checking; they never abandon the pursuit, and pale-face has to run a more literal gauntlet of checkers, than red-skin gene- rally meets with in his progress on the field. The fact that an opponent, seen or unseen, is on your track, is likely to excite and confuse you, and sometimes spoil your throw.

“Following the ball” in Lacrosse is not a general chase after it;—that would be as absurd as an entire “Eleven” chasing a cricket-ball. No man is restrained from following it, in accordance with his own judgment, and that of his captain; but, as we said before, position should never be sacrificed, nor defence weakened, by too much skirmishing. It is well to give three or four men—not more—on a “Twelve” limitless action. They flutter around the field in a raiding style, very useful in spoiling any pet disposition of the opponents, and preserving a balance of power; alternating between attack and defence. They harass the enemy’s goal, and are lions in the path of dodgers; and if they do not attempt to play the whole game themselves, are invaluable anywhere and everywhere. They relieve any man, and support all, and fill a gap here and there in the nick of time. The beauty of this style is that the opposing checks at defence, never get used to the changeable character of the attack, consequent on the varied styles of the men, and that weak fielders are oftener sure of support, in case they fail in wind or ability.

One great fault of pale-face play, is a lack of foresight in anticipating the spot a thrown ball will fall; or rather the instantaneous action when the ball is thrown. The Indians do not wait to see where a ball will light before they chase it. They follow it the instant it leaves the crosse, and know, by the rise, exactly where it will drop. They retreat like a flash to the defence, if the ball goes towards their goal; or crowd down to the attack, if it goes towards that of their opponent. Whereever the ball drops, one or more natives are under it, or at it. What folly to talk of “men never leaving positions” under the circumstances.

Whenever the Indians can, they like to bunch at the goal. We would not advise such tactics in the pale-face game; but if you ever play opponents who practise it, do not leave the defence to Goal-keeper and Point; proportion your men to the numerical strength of the attack, always remembering that, though one man may be physically a match for two, no one man can do much between two antagonists tacking the ball over his head. Sir Colin Campbell received the Russian cavalry with a two-deep line, and made them turn tail; but any parallel defence of confidence in men in Lacrosse, however perfect your goal-keeper and Point may be, is dangerous.

A word about rough play. There is quite enough excitement in the quietest game without adding rough play to make it impetuous. Violent outbreaks of brute force are the death-blows to art, and not only injure the popularity of the sport, but tend to physical injury, sooner or later. Put a rough player where you will, and he shows roughness. In goal, he swipes at every ball; on the field, he has no regard for his friends or foes, but throws full force, and swipes without mercy. There is always sufficient calls for exertion in ordinary fielding, without resorting to deliberate rough and homicidal play. Fierce checking and violent shouldering should be repudiated as contrary to the principles of the game. We have no objections to a good toss, and rather relish a tough tussle, but tossing and tussling should not be a rule of play. Learn the art of handling the crosse to perfection, and the different dodges, checks, throws, etc., and you will require to pay less attention to the art of shouldering. Cultivate scientific play, and any other will be hateful, as swiping is to good cricketers. We may lay it down as a leading maxim in fielding, that the cause of success of noted rough players is not a principle to be imitated. Some old players, who esteem themselves superlative excellence, have a good deal to unlearn in this respect. We would not be misunderstood in our ideas upon rough play. We do not wish to be restricted to conformity to a code of Lacrosse ethics, which will deprive us of the relish of shouldering a man if we please, while strictly obeying the rule on “rough play,”—especially if the said man be bigger and stronger; but we repudiate the miscellaneous butting which in close contests, make men calculate what they will do with their shoulders instead of their crosse.

We were invited by an Indian chief, at Caughnawaga, early one morning last summer, to witness a game of Lacrosse on the common, among about thirty Indian residents; and after watching a hard-fought game of an hour, the gentle savage turned to us, and said, in broken English: “You can’t play Lacrosse like that. You smash heads, cut hands, make blood. We play all day; no hurt, except when drunk.” It is very rare that an Indian is injured or injures ever so slightly when playing with his fellow red-skins; but when red meets white, then comes the tug of war—and we blame the latter for its development.

There is one other important consideration in fielding, which men are likely to forget in the excitement of the game,—we refer to over-exertion. No man should use himself up by hard running, unless a hard run is unavoidably necessary. Keep your wind and endurance as fresh as possible for the last game. Should goal-keeper, point, cover-point and home always retain their positions?—Last season there was considerable controversy on this question, with the view of making it a principle that the above men should “never leave their places.” Young players and new clubs—especially those who never saw the game played, and consequently knew nothing to the contrary—were deluded into the belief that it was correct; and several queries on the subject came to us from different parts of Canada. Otherwise, we would not think it necessary to repudiate a proposition, so patent a mistake to anyone who knows anything of Lacrosse. In the infancy of the game, it is well to definitely settle such issues, however, and we regret that such propositions are made without any previous experiment to justify them. Nothing is easier than to draw up plans for a grand campaign, but the difficulty lies in carrying them out. Nothing is easier than to propose fine theories in Lacrosse; but, like the Fenian projects to take Canada, they look mightier on paper than they turn out in practice.

It is well understood by the best Lacrosse-players everywhere, that no position in the game is, or ever can be, absolutely permanent; that they fluctuate in accordance with the wavering destinies of the ball and the circumstances which grow out of these changes. To make any one or more positions permanent, would completely change the character, and destroy the uniqueness and beauty of the game. It would be like some games of chess, where a single pawn could checkmate, if it only had the power to move like a castle. It might be possible to have a perversion of Lacrosse, if two sides agreed to play with the above men permanently fixed, but a “Twelve” playing on such a stagnating principle, would soon have their fine theories scattered to the winds, while they might almost as well be spectators as participants, for all the support they could give their fielders. It is not usual for a man carrying the ball to get in the way of opposing checkers, if he can help it; and there would be less probability of it than now, if any certain men were “never to leave their places.” The result, too, would be to over-tax and break down the fielders, and give either the attack or the defence men—as the game was going—a wearisome repose, instead of that division of labor which alone can make a “Twelve” on a hard-fought field successful. It would be like holding a reserve of skirmishers in check until the advance were all cut off. In the chapter on “Goal-Keeping,” to show the necessity for goal-keeper sometimes leaving his place; in describing the duties of Home, Point and Cover-point in the present chapter, we have also attempted to prove the same necessity in their cases. It may be well to illustrate this point more fully in its individual and collective bearings, as recognized both in Indian and pale-face play.

The men chosen for the several particular points are their legitimate possessors, with prescriptive right at proper times to move out or in, or dash down the field; but the vicinity they occupy should seldom be left vacant. If Point utterly forsakes his port, Cover-point or a near fielder should retreat to the vicinity; if Cover-point leaves, an adjacent fielder should take his place. The fielders nearest at any time to the special points, are always their supposed supports, and should relieve and support them when necessary.

The number of men on each side influences the movements of the special points. If there are only twelve on a side, these points necessarily have more leg-work.

We would like to see it made a rule that goal-keeper, Point and Cover-point—especially the two former—should limit their range to their half of the field, unless they made a permanent change, or the game was very favorable for their side. This would give them scope enough, would always ensure a good defence, and better systematize the posting of the men, as the adjacent fielders would know their original positions from their vicinity to these points. and would not be as likely to neglect them. Indeed, in difficult defence, this must necessarily be the management; and in any case, it is the safest play.

The exact position of Home must be governed by many circumstances. The ball is not always thrown to him in the same way, and sometimes not to him at all. If a fielder has a chance to carry a game safely, it would be folly throwing to Home, and trusting to him to put it in. Because a man is Home, it does not follow that he always has the best chance of scoring game. If the rule was absolute to throw to him, goal-keeper would have an easier time of it, and games would be of longer duration. Recall the strength of a rallying attack, where two or more opponents, tacking to each other, work the ball up to the flags; how weak in comparison would be the solitary dependence upon Home! Home often must “leave his place.” Whenever he can get to a ball thrown wide or over the goal, before an opponent, and before any other man of his side, he should do so. If he, sooner than any of his side, can prevent an opponent getting the ball away from the goal, he should certainly do it. It often happens that he can reach wide and over balls before any other man of his own side, and prevent an opponent pitching it away from the critical vicinity. Whenever he leaves his place, under any such circumstance, the nearest link should close to the goal-crease, ready to strike in any throw; while the other links dispose themselves to check the movements of adversaries who should run to the defence.

We would not like to see Lacrosse so revolutionized as to make the permanency of any position compulsory, but the common sense of players should guard them against running to the other extreme, and forsaking them. Many otherwise good players, have a chronic habit of wandering from their position, and the vicinity of the man they are posted to check.

And here it may be necessary to remind admirers of Indian tactics, that we do not take the Indian as a perfect model, and, therefore, do not imitate their actual disposition or play. They are never posted with regard to us; they like to get away from our fielders as disagreeable neighbours, unless their goal is attacked, whet. they exhibit a wonderful unity of defence, utterly regardless of all previous arrangement—parallel with the bunching game at the goal of the opponent.

A few general rules, and we have done with “Fielding.”

  1. Do not leave men unchecked—especially near your goal.
  2. Always warn your men who straggle.
  3. Two checkers should scarcely ever tackle one dodger.
  4. Two opponents tacking should be checked by two men.
  5. Do not form knots either in defence or attack.